View Full Version : Why Hamlet Didn’t Want to be a Big Wheel

Ray Eston Smith
05-18-2009, 03:47 PM
As the Globe spins out The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, a wheel motif reveals an important aspect of Hamlet’s character and motivation: Hamlet tries to isolate himself to avoid becoming, like most kings, the nave of Fortune’s wheel, fated to cause the deaths of friends and countrymen. Although Hamlet causes the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Polonius, he believes they sealed their own fates by willingly insinuating themselves into the king’s inner circle, metaphorically imitating naves of wheels. The wheel motif can be traced by careful attention to the words whirling, nave/knave, wheel, spoke, round, circumstance, and revolution.

Hamlet. Why, e'en so, and now my Lady Worm's, chopless, and knock'd about the [mazzard] with a sexton's spade. Here's fine revolution, and we had the trick to see't.(V.i 88-91)

Within its immediate context this is a rather shallow pun about the turning of the fine dirt (the revolution of the earth) in a grave, which is also the final revolution of Fortune’s wheel. But it becomes more exciting when we take it as a challenge to unearth the subtle motif of wheel puns spun throughout the play.

. . . The cess of majesty
Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw
What's near it with it. Or it is a massy wheel
Fix'd on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose [huge] spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortic'd and adjoin'd, which when it falls,
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boist'rous [ruin]. Never alone
Did the King sigh, but [with] a general groan.
(III.iii 15-23)

First Player [in a speech requested by Hamlet]
Out, out, thou strumpet Fortune! All you gods,
In general synod, take away her power!
Brake all the spokes and [fellies] from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,
As low as to the fiends! (II.ii 493-497)

Two separate characters, out of earshot of each other, ask us to picture spoked wheels rolling down to doom. To dismiss this parallelism as mere coincidence would be to brand Shakespeare as an incompetent writer. Instead, we must rise above the world of the characters to hear the author speaking to his audience through the mouths of his characters, sometimes making those characters unknowingly reveal their inner souls through metaphors they themselves don't fully understand. As the world turns, this global perspective is “the trick to see't.”

One wheel metaphor is about kings, the other about fortune. The two metaphors merge naturally when we realize that kings all too often determine the fortune (or doom) of their subjects. Thus, when Hamlet wants to strip the spokes from Fortune’s wheel, we can infer that he wants to spare his friends and countrymen from his own impending doom as heir to the throne. Hamlet's concern for his countrymen is never better illustrated than in the contrast between Hamlet and Laertes when they confront the king. Laertes challenges the king with a mob at his back (IV.v 100-109); Hamlet naked and alone (IV.vii 44-53).

Kings extort obedience from their subjects, forcing them to be spokes to the king’s nave. Even after death, the late King Hamlet, “that...is the question of these wars” (I.i 110-111), “would be spoke to” (I.i 44).

However, Polonius and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern willingly insinuate themselves into the king’s inner circle, almost becoming naves themselves. Polonius began his metaphorical metamorphosis when he “went round to work” (II.ii 139). Eagerly embracing his role as the king’s spy, he says,

If circumstances lead me, I will find
Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed
Within the centre. (II.ii 156-158)

The “circumstances” are the turning of Fortune’s great wheel. The “centre” is the nave or knave, who is hid behind the arras where Hamlet expected to find a king (Polonius’ “better”).

I took thee for thy better. Take thy fortune;(III.iv 32)

Polonius “was in life a foolish prating knave” (III.iv 215) or nave, imitating the king who is the nave of Fortune’s wheel as it rolls down to damnation.

Ophelia’s mad words only slightly jumble the method of the metaphor:

You must sing, “A-down, a-down,', and you call him a-down-a. O how the wheel becomes it! (IV.v 171-173)

The nave is still spinning (head over heels), even in his grave:

At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone. (IV.v 31-32)

Polonius may have turf at his head, but his face has gone mysteriously bare: “they bore him barefac’d on the bier” (IV.v 165). The mystery of the missing beard is solved by returning to the First Player’s wheel speech:

First Player [in a speech requested by Hamlet]
Out, out, thou strumpet Fortune! All you gods,
In general synod, take away her power!
Brake all the spokes and [fellies] from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,
As low as to the fiends!
This is too long.
It shall to the barber's, with your beard.(II.ii 493-499)

Hamlet requests a speech which expresses Hamlet’s desire to isolate kings from innocent bystanders. Polonius wants to cut it short. By his subsequent meddling, Polonius puts himself in the place of the nave Claudius and thereby causes Hamlet to unknowingly cut Polonius. Hence the intent of the speech is cut short, and so is the would-be-nave Polonius, and so is Polonius’ beard.

Hamlet liked Polonius [“mock him not” (II.ii 545)] and is sorry that he’s killed him: “For this same lord, / I do repent” (III.iv 172-173). But he has no sympathy for his false friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

Why, man, they did make love to this employment,
They are not near my conscience. Their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow. (V.ii 57-59)

The First Player refers to “strumpet Fortune” and her wheel(II.ii 493). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern admit to living "in the middle of [Fortune’s] favors," as Hamlet says, ”in the secret parts of Fortune . . . . she is a strumpet" (II.ii 232-236). Hamlet’s ribald pun equates “middle” to the secret parts in the middle of strumpet Fortune’s body, but those words also apply to the nave of Fortune’s wheel – the middle is the nave which is a part of her wheel. Thus, like Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern metamorphose into naves. They insinuated themselves into the king’s business and ended up delivering their own death warrant, which originally had been intended for Hamlet (V.ii 17-47). And so we see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet the same fate as Polonius. Polonius is killed in place of the nave Claudius – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed in place of the nave Hamlet.

Hamlet’s true friend is Horatio, the “election” of his soul (III.ii 63-65). Right after confirming his navish birth by writing his father’s commandment to live all alone in his brain (I.v 98-103), Hamlet tries to break off the Horatio-spoke from his nave:

Hamlet. There's never a villain dwelling in all Denmark
But he's an arrant knave.
Horatio. There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave
To tell us this.
Hamlet. Why, right, you are in the right,
And so, without more circumstance at all,
I hold it fit that we shake hands and part,
You as your business and desires shall point you,
For every man hath business and desire,
Such as it is - and for my own poor part,
I will go pray.
These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.
(I.v 123-132)

In addition to the usual meaning of "bad guy," "villain" means a person of low birth, as in "I am no villain; I am the youngest son of Sir Rowland de Boys" (As You Like It I.i 56). A villain would not live in a palace – he would typically dwell in a village or hamlet. Thus a "villain dwelling" is a hamlet. So young Hamlet and old Hamlet (both villain dwellings) are knaves – or naves.

Putting all this together, we see Hamlet cryptically likening himself (as a prince and potential king) to the nave of a wheel. His friends are his spokes, which are perpendicular ("in the right") to the nave (radii cross a circle at right angles to the circle). Before Fortune’s wheel turns anymore ("without more circumstance"), he wants to "break all the spokes…from her wheel" so that they won’t be carried "down the hill of heaven" with him. (In the original staging, it is likely that Hamlet spun around as he shook hands with Horatio and flung him outward.) He wants to sigh alone Hamlet was born to be the nave of Fortune’s wheel, but he would rather be the nave of a church – “for my own poor part, I will go pray.” Maybe solitary prayer is Hamlet’s way to sigh alone.

We've seen evidence that Hamlet wants to avoid becoming a king who would drag his subjects down to their dooms. However, as yet we haven't seen the primary modus operandi of killer-kings - war. Kings make war because they value dirt over people – as in a graveyard. Thus to understand warlike kings we must return to the gravedigger, turning his fine dirt. But that will have to be the subject of another essay.

Works Cited

As You Like It. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974. 370.

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974. 1135-1197.

05-18-2009, 04:36 PM
Ray E S, did you write all this yourself? or is it from a book. It's very well written. I find all of this totally fascinating! Good job, if it be a paper you wrote. I am forever intrigued with Hamlet. I am a huge Hamlet buff. I can't see the film version enough - but only a complete version and I have read the play several times. I had not consciously thought of all these references to wheels, but I know these lines, which you have quoted, very well by now; I had noted that wheel was referenced often; you have made the meanings more clear to me - thank you for that. You just made me considering watching the film version again tonight; this time, with the new perspective of this idea of 'wheel' planted firmly in my mind. Thanks for writing this up and posting it.

Ray Eston Smith
05-18-2009, 07:59 PM
Janine -
Yes, I wrote it myself. I've googled for similar ideas from other sources, but the closest I've found is somebody who thinks Hamlet is all about the transition from the Ptolemaic theory to the Copernican theory. I don't think Shakespeare was that interested in astronomy. He only used astronomy as a source of metaphors to describe his real interest - people. In my essay, I hinted at a possible pun on turning-of-dirt/revolution-of-the-earth, but that was a bit of stretch, based on "fine dirt" and "fine revolution." And that pun doesn't really fit in with the motif about kings as deadly wheels of fortune.

I've had a cruder version of this essay at http://academia.wikia.com/wiki/Motifs_in_Hamlet for a couple years, but I just recently rewrote it in this more formal and complete essay style to send it to an English professor. He politely replied, "this is great stuff," but I don't think he got it. He was trying to work it into his own theory that Hamlet was influenced by the wheel of fortune in Canterbury Tales, but I think the metaphor is used in a completely different way there.

Thank you very much for your response. It sounds like you really do get it. And watching the play again is a great idea. Reading and writing and talking about Hamlet is all well and good, but ultimately it's only useful if it helps when you're actually watching the play. That's the only time the full meaning has a chance of coming through.

Back in the mid-nineties I briefly corresponded with the director of a local performance of Hamlet here in Phoenix. (I think her name was something like Lili St Cyr, but that can't be right. Lili St Cyr was a famous stripper in the fifties.) She was one of the few people who ever got my ideas (at least one of them). I attended the first performance of her Hamlet. When Hamlet said "oh that this too too solid flesh would melt", instead of staring at his own hand like every other modern Hamlet, he gestured off stage, where Claudius had just exited. (One of my theories is that "canon 'gainst self-slaughter" was a pun on the cannon that Cloud-ius had just fired at the clouds. Hamlet was wishing that Claudius would commit self-slaughter. See
http://academia.wikia.com/wiki/Motifs_in_Hamlet#Claudius.27_cannon_.27gainst_self-slaughter). It gave me goosebumps thinking that the scene was being performed right for the first time in 380 years. The critics gave her production very poor reviews, mostly because Hamlet couldn't remember his lines.

05-20-2009, 01:55 AM
The wheel motif can be traced by careful attention to the words whirling, nave/knave, wheel, spoke, round, circumstance, and revolution. While these wheel allusions, Ray, appear tenuous, they suggest method in what otherwise seems like random fragments. Perhaps, as we read looking for wheel motifs, familiarity will transform the tenuous into the compelling.

mona amon
05-20-2009, 06:03 AM
A very interesting essay, Ray Eston Smith! I really enjoyed reading it. :)

Ray Eston Smith
05-20-2009, 04:12 PM
Mona -

From your porpentine signature, I'm guessing you might be interested in an essay I wrote which puts forth the theory that Hamlet's mind, covered with hairs on end like "the fretful porpentine," is a kind of purgatory for his father's spirit.

Here's a link to the essay:

then find "A Camel in My Mind's Eye"

In a couple of books (but nowhere on the internet), I've seen a watercolor copy of the Stratford mural that was made before the original mural was destroyed. It shows damned souls being dragged down a hill into the mouth of hell (or Purgatory), which looks like a giant porcupine head.
- Ray
email: [email protected]

(The essay assumes Hamlet's uncle is like his Father. He was "no more like my father than I to Hercules." But Hamlet was like Hercules. See another of my essays at
then find "Mine Uncle, More Like My Father")

mona amon
05-22-2009, 11:35 PM
Thanks for the link, Ray. I read it just now, and it was good! :)